The secretary of homeland security faced sharp questioning about agency priorities from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Thursday, with many expressing deep concerns about whether the Trump administration is properly promoting Americans' safety.
Democrats in particular questioned Kirstjen Nielsen about the administration's prioritization of immigration enforcement and the building of a border wall while also seeking to cut funding for state and local governments to prepare for and respond to security threats.
"Tell us how cutting this kind of funding helps America be safer," demanded Rep. Bill Keating, D-Massachusetts.
The top Democrat on the committee, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, had sharp words for Nielsen in his opening remarks, accusing the department of intentionally attacking non-dangerous immigrants as a distraction.
"Based on your press releases this week, you would think the most important homeland security problem facing the nation is a handful of Central Americans moving through Mexico," Thompson said, referring to a caravan of mostly women and children asylum seekers that takes place every year to call attention to the plight of Central Americans. "That does not make it so. ... Better to distract the American people from the very real issues facing the department and perhaps from the President's own problems too."
In one particularly sharp exchange, Florida Democratic Rep. Val Demings, a former chief of police in Orlando, pressed Nielsen on whether she prioritized the wall and immigration over helping local communities.
"I think if we can keep the threat out of our country, through strong border security, that is the first and best way to help those state and locals prepare," Nielsen said, after saying they're "both important issues."
Demings asked Nielsen how many people have been killed at the southern border during her tenure, to which Nielsen answered she would have to check; Demings also asked how many Border Patrol agents have been killed or seriously wounded; Nielsen said two without elaborating further. One agent was killed and another wounded in an incident last November, just before Nielsen was confirmed, which authorities found had no connection to foul play or any kind of criminal assault.
Demings then listed the 17 people killed in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, the 49 killed in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida, and the 58 killed at a concert in Las Vegas.
"You have no idea how many people overall died during your tenure at the southwest border, but you would consider that a greater priority than 58, the 49, or the (17), those that are classified as domestic acts of terrorism, with your dollars," Demings said. "You believe that putting them at a southwest border is a greater priority -- how do you justify that?"
Nielsen reiterated that her priority is securing the border. which can help "eliminate part of the threat environment that the state and locals have to deal with."
Keating, Demings and others were focused on proposed cuts to several grant programs aimed at countering terrorism and violent extremism. The fiscal 2018 budget proposed cutting more than $300 million from such programs, although Congress ignored those recommendations and continued funding for the programs.
New York Republican Reps. Peter King and Dan Donovan also raised concerns about the cuts.
"I would just again ask you to reconsider and look at how that money is being distributed and why we have cuts at a time like this when, again, in many ways the threats are more than they were before 9/11," King said.
Chairman Mike McCaul, of Texas, also made a reference in his opening statements to cuts to first responder grants, calling them "a major step backwards."
Nielsen repeatedly said the agency is taking a "holistic" approach to preparedness and was looking to use grants not to sustain local departments, but to address new and emerging threats.
"We need to balance the maintenance and sustainment with the goal of the grants originally, which is to build capacity," Nielsen said.
But Democrats were especially critical of the explanation, highlighting the department's particular focus on immigrants.
"You said you want to build a greater capability for emerging threats," said Keating. "This budget does not reflect that commitment to preparedness at all. ... The things I mentioned have all saved lives, so with a culture of preparedness with emerging threats, how is that greater? How are we safer with that?"
Many Republican members of the committee praised Nielsen and the administration's focus on border security and illegal immigration.
"This administration has been a strong supporter of these solutions and I commend the recent decision to deploy the National Guard to the border," the panel's chairman, Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, said in his prepared opening statement.
McCaul and Arizona Republican Rep. Martha McSally both took opportunities to plug a hardline immigration and border security bill they co-wrote in their lines of questioning, noting the administration's support.
"This administration has been a strong supporter of these solutions, and I commend the recent decision to deploy the National Guard to the border," McCaul said in his prepared opening statement.